The Japanese violist, Nobuko Imai, began her training at Tokyo's Toho Gakuen School of Music and soon after went to the USAs where she studied at the Juilliard School and Yale University. She won the Young Concert Artists International Auditions in 1967 and won highest prize at both the Geneva International Music Competition and ARD International Music Competition in Munich.
Nobuko Imai has an extensive career as soloist and chamber musician, known for sharp performances of the Mozart and L.v. Beethoven chamber repertoire. She has worked in chamber music projects with such distinguished artists as Martha Argerich, Alessio Bax, Kyung-Wha Chung, Heinz Holliger, Ivo Janssen, Mischa Maisky, Murray Perahia, Ivo Janssen, Gidon Kremer, Yo Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, András Schiff, Isaac Stern, Antoine Tamestit and Pinchas Zukerman. In addition she has toured with Midori, performing chamber music, while further collaborators include pianists Ronald Brautigam, and accordionist Mie Miki for recitals. Her trio combinations include concerts with Pamela Frank and Clemens Hagen, and Mihaela Martin and Frans Helmerson. She is a former member of the Vermeer Quartet and is the founder and a member of the Michaelangelo Quartet with Stephan Picard, Mihaela Martin and Frans Helmerson.
Nobuko Imai has appeared with with the world's major orchestras, such as the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Amsterdam), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Berliner Philharmoniker, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Dallas Symphony Orchestra, English Chamber Orchestra, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, and Wiener Symphoniker, among many others. She has appeared at Marlboro Festival regularly, Lockenhaus, the Casals Festival, Saito Kinen Festival, Aldeburgh, and the BBC Proms. Together with Yuri Bashmet, Kim Kashkashian and Tabea Zimmermann she was one of the four violists featured at the International Viola Festival in Kromberg. In 1995-1996 she was Artistic Director of three Hindemith Festivals which were organized on her initiative at the Wigmore Hall in London, at Columbia University in New York and at the Casals Hall in Tokyo.
Nabuko Imai is known for an innovative approach to her instrument, and her unique accomplishments include creating viola adaptations of works for cello from the classical repertoire. Even in her early days as a student she was known for sparks of technical brilliance; when her class was going through an intense study of J.S. Bach, attempting to come as close as possible to the composer's original intentions, it was Imai that came up with the idea of the string players use Baroque bows instead of modern bows with their modern instruments. She also brings this focus into her involvement with contemporary music, naturally.
Always an enthusiast for new works, her discography includes a collaboration with the Japanese avant-garde composer Toru Takemitsu, who created a work specifically for the violist focusing on the unique characteristics of the instrument. Commercial success rarely follows an artist's involvement with contemporary music, but Imai's collection of 20th century pieces for viola and piano released on BIS, including the work by Takemitsu, was a bestseller in Japan. She has also premiered works by George Benjamin, Duncan McTier, and David Horne. Another aspect of her ambitious career are events involving cultural exchange. In 2000 she initiated and assisted in the production of a concert series held at both the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and in Tokyo, which featured Japanese and Dutch early and contemporary music, celebrating the relationship between the two countries which has existed for more than four centuries.
Nabuko Imai taught as a Professor at the Hochschule für Musik Detmold from 1983 to 2003, and currently teaches at the Conservatories of Amsterdam, the Utrecht Conservatory in the Netherlands, Conservatoire Supérieur et Académie de Musique Tibor Varga in Sion and at the Conservatoire Supérieur de Musique de Genève. She returns to Japan several times a year, where she has served as Artistic Adviser of the Casals Hall's annual "Viola Space" project and the Casals Hall Ensemble for the past ten years. In 2000 she founded an institution called the East West Baroque Academy, where young music professionals are able to gain experience in authentic early music style and performance practices.
Her superb discography includes more than 30 releases on labels such as BIS, Chandos, DGG, EMI, Hyperion, and Philips. Most recently, she is attracting attention with her Philips recordings of Unaccompanied Cello Suites (for Viola) by J.S. Bach, as well as Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola with Midori/Eschenbach/NDR. While on BIS, she received acclaim for her CD with 20th century works for viola and piano, entitled "A Bird came down the Walk", named after the work dedicated to her by Takemitsu. Takemitsu also wrote a viola concerto for Nobuko Imai A String around Autumn in 1989, and contemporary music features prominently in her repertoire, which contains all the major works for viola.
Since 1988 Nabuko Imai has played an Andrea Guarneri of 1690. She has been a recipient of numerous awards including the Avon Arts Award (1993), the Education Minister's Art Prize for Music awarded by the Japanese Agency of Cultural Affairs (1994), the Mobil Prize of Japan (1995), Mainichi Award of Arts (1996), and, in 1996, the most prestigious prize of Japan, the Suntory Hall Prize, awarded to her by an unanimous jury.